The low hum of the engine rumbled deep in his chest. The Captain told him he’d get used to it, enjoy it even, but even after eight months he was decidedly not accustomed to the feeling. Particularly this morning, after a long night of nausea from a storm. It appeared they’d managed to clean the mess Villem made of the bridge the night before.
The thought of it made Villem feel queasy again.
“Pick your head up there, Villem. There we go. Stand like a true first mate!” The leather-skinned Captain Graham grinned, his blue eyes sparkling like the sky he loved so much.
“Come on Dad, stop harassing the wizard.” Rosemary glanced at Villem. “You feeling better?”
Villem sat in a metal chair, the rusting metal squeaking with his weight. How old was this ship, anyway? For an airship that was the captain’s pride and joy, it was pretty junky. “As well as I can. What’s the reason for you dragging me out of bed at this godforsaken hour?”
“We have a job.” Graham crossed his arms and looked at his daughter. “Rose got a message this morning.”
Villem grumbled. “It’s barely seven how can a job arrive “this morning.”
Rosemary nodded to the screen in front of her. “We’re about an hour out. It’s a port town so once we get closer we’ll take the ship down to the water and dock in.”
Villem pressed his thin glasses higher on his face. Good, he thought. Flying is so much worse than sailing. “What does the job entail?”
“wolf on the loose.” Graham said. “Seems they’ve been plagued for a few days now.”
“Why call us and not the local enforcement?”
“Seems they did call the local enforcement and they found nothing. So they called us.” Graham grinned.
“I see.” Villem leaned deeper into the chair. He stared out the window at the clouds passing them. Rolling and rolling over one another, a dance that he both loved and loathed since leaving the city and joining Graham and Rosemary. Although being a glorified errand boy for the captain was quite a departure from his previous role as a literary professor at a prestigious university, he found his new role refreshing. But after his relationship with the dean metaphorically and literally blew up in his face, joining these renegades was all he could really do.
The clouds’ dance rose higher and higher as the ship descended to the sea. The familiar jolt and creaks told Villem the ship landed in the water and the air sails retracted, leaving the airship to look like a more traditional sea-bearing ship, albeit more rusted.
They approached the small dock and Villem stood. The town was barely bigger than five blocks, at the most, and was nestled in an otherwise hostile environment. The small beach surrounding the dock quickly jutted up into tall cliffs surrounded entirely by a thick pine forest.
Graham whistled. “Seems these folk thought it would be wise to live between cliffs and mountains, eh?” He patted Villem’s shoulder. “Come out with me to greet the folks. Rose, stay in here and make sure nothing happens to the ship.”
Rosemary ran her fingers through her dark, curly hair. “Can-do, oh father of mine!”
Villem followed Graham through the ship and out onto the deck. They could see three men approaching the ship. Graham motioned his hand to the bridge folded on the deck. He raised a brow. “Care to let the good villagers know who they’re dealing with?”
Villem frowned. “Are you using me for skill or cheap parlor tricks?” He held out his hands and they glowed with the faint violet light known to his branch of wizards. He gently coaxed the walkway from the deck to rest on the dock.
“That’s my boy.” Graham clasped Villem’s shoulder. “Sometimes cheap parlor tricks are needed to strike fear into the rural folk.” He led the way down the walkway.
One of the men stepped forward. A balding man wearing a knee-length tunic tied at his waist. The two behind him seemed shaken by Villem’s modest display. “You are Graham, I take it.”
Graham held out his hand. “A pleasure. The wizard is Villem. We’re here to help.”
The man did not shake Graham’s hand. “I am Fezen, leader of this village. Follow me.”
The captain looked back at Villem, who nodded. With another gentle coaxing, the walkway was back on the ship. They then followed behind Fezen to a warehouse next to the dock.
“We are primarily a small fishing village, with little other ways of keeping ourselves fed. We have a few gardens and goats around and we guard them very closely.” Fezen unlocked the warehouse and opened the door. “Travelers frequent us through the forest paths and that is our only means of income. Our port is not used for trade.” He walked into the warehouse and Graham followed.
Villem wasn’t far behind. The smell of dead fish filled his nostrils, mixed with another, very different, smell of death.
Fezen stepped to the side. Laying on the floor was the carcass of a large white wolf. In fact, large would be an understatement. This wolf was massive. Villem guessed that if it was alive it would stand to his shoulder. His eyes narrowed and he frowned.
Wolves didn’t typically come this large. What was going on?
“Why do you have this carcass just laying here? It smells so bad.” Graham ran his hand over his mouth.
“We have no other place to put it.” Fezen looked at Villem. “We shot this wolf three days ago, just outside of town near the goats. We’ve seen another wolf around as well. We’ve tried to hunt and kill it, however it proves elusive.”
“How many goats has it eaten?” Villem asked.
Fezen turned to Graham. “Our women and children are quite terrified. Just the other night, my own child refused to leave the house to return the chickens to the coop. This has us in constant fear.
Graham nodded. “Alright, we’ll make sure that wolf doesn’t bother you.”
“Thank you. I will show you where we last saw it.”
Graham followed Villem out of the warehouse. Fezen locked the door and led them up the road.
“Why was that wolf so big?” Villem asked. “Are they usually that large?”
“Yesterday we were able to gauge how large this other wolf is; it’s significantly larger than the one we’ve already killed. The size of a horse, practically.” The road was barely a half mile along before they came to the edge of the forest. Fezen pointed to just beyond a berry bush. “We saw it in the clearing just beyond that bush. It keeps hanging near the village, getting closer with each night.”
Graham nodded. “Alright. We’ll do our best. If you’ll excuse me, Villem and I have to strategize.”
Fezen nodded. “I will be at the dock.”
When he was out of earshot, Graham turned his gaze to Villem. “You got that uneasy feeling, too?”
“He keeps evading my questions.” Villem grimaced before sighing. “That was an abnormally large wolf. I’m not convinced it’s a typical breed.” He glanced to the forest. “There are writings of a clan of wolves double, and sometimes triple, the size of a common wolf. It’s quite possible that’s what we’re dealing with. And if that is, things will get complicated: evidence suggests these wolves are sentient and fully capable of human speech.”
“If that’s true, can’t you like… reverse time and bring this wolf back? And if it talks, we have our answer?”
Villem snorted. “I don’t deal in Temporal Magic, Graham. My specialty is Spacial. Besides, once something is dead, it’s dead. Not even a necromancer can raise a soul.”
“Disappointing. Well, while you go track down this wolf I’ll see what answers I find here.” Graham rummaged through his coat breast pocket. He held out a palm-size device. “When you find anything, report it.”
Villem took the communicator and nodded. He pressed the button. “I’m separating from Graham.”
The communicator crackled. “Good to hear your voice there, Villem! Keep me updated. And Dad, don’t get shot.”
Graham laughed. He pulled out his own communicator. “That only happened twice.”
“Three times, old timer. Three times.”
Graham shook his head with a chuckle. He gripped Villem’s shoulder a final time. “Good luck, kid.”
Kid? Villem was nearly 27. But he didn’t feel like arguing with the captain, considering his oldest son was quite a few years older than Villem. The wizard decided to nod. “You too, Captain.”
Graham gave another grin and turned back towards the docks. Villem crawled through the thicket as gingerly as he could. The prickers and twigs pulled on his pants and leather coat, causing multiple pauses and tugs to his clothes. Finally he left the brush and stepped into the small clearing. He bent down and combed over the ground.
Finally he found it. Wolf tracks. Big wolf tracks, holding up his hand the paw print was barely smaller than his fingers fully extended. Gripping his fist tight, he pushed down the growing anxieties swirling in his head.
If this is a wild beast, the size of a horse, was he going to be quick enough to avoid being killed? But if this was indeed a tribesman from the liturature he’s read, will this person hear reason? Steeling his will, he stood and prepared himself to fight. His hands glowed faintly and he trekked forward.
The tracks kept going, passing over at least one road and continued beyond. Was this even a wise decision? What if he got lost?
In the distance, Villem heard the faint trickling of water. As he approached, the tracks abruptly ended at the creek. He stared across the narrow waterway, but he couldn’t see anything more. He looked around the clearing, staring intently at the bubbling creek and small waterfall.
Villem’s glowing magic exploded across his body, sending him six feet into the air before falling on a nearby bush. He groaned and pulled out his communicator. “Not yet Captain. I reached the end of the tracks. How about you?”
“Nothing so far. This guy is super dodgy with his answers. Hey, you okay buddy? You sound hurt.”
“I’m fine. Just… tripped on a bush.” He pulled himself up. “I’ll let you know what I find soon.”
Rosemary turned on her communicator to laugh.
Villem frowned. “Thanks for the encouragement, Rosemary.” He put the communicator back in his pocket and sighed, stretching forward.
“Who are you.”
He snapped to a standing position and looked around. No one was there. “… hello?”
“Answer my question.” The woman’s voice came from above. He looked up and saw what looked like a mass of fur high in the tree.
“Uh, I’m Villem Oscar. May I ask who you are?”
“Why are you here, Villem Oscar?” The figure climbed farther down and Villem could see it was, indeed, a woman. She wore a cream fur cloak on her back and buckled over her chest. Her own creamy blonde hair fell over her face, barely obscuring her bright auburn eyes.
Those eyes were like nothing he had ever seen on a person. They felt wild, feral. Like a wolf.
“I’m here looking for a wolf.”
Her eyes flashed at that. She dropped to the bottom branch and grabbed the one above it, leaning forward over Villem. “Why?”
“I was hired to. Who are you?”
“Who hired you? What does this wolf you’re searching for look like?” Her eyes blazed, boring deep into him. Suddenly he wished he had encountered a wolf instead. Whoever this woman was, her intensity made him feel deeply unsettled.
“Well uh, the village hired me.” He took off his glasses and wiped them on his pocket handkerchief. “But if I was to be honest with you, I’m quite skeptical on their intentions. You seem interested in my search for a wolf, if I am correct?”
“You are.” She dropped to the ground and stood in front of him. She wasn’t much shorter than his own 5’11 stature. “What wolf are you searching for? What does it look like?” She held out her hand. It was about the height of his shoulder. “Is the wolf you are searching for this height?”
His heart began to sink. “N… no.” He ran his hand over his mouth. “I was looking for a wolf about the size of a horse.”
A light seemed to dim in her eyes. “Oh. I see.” She turned and began to cross the small creek.
“Are you also looking for a wolf? Perhaps I can help?”
“I have no money to hire you.”
“I don’t need payment. I just want to help.” He swallowed. She wasn’t stopping. “I… I think I may know where the wolf you’re looking for is.”
She stopped at that. “Tell me more.”
“Can I get your name first?”
She turned slowly, looking at him from head to toe. “… my name is Shei. I have no surname.”
Villem nodded. “Alright. What is this wolf you’re looking for? Can you tell me more about it?”
“He is my brother. We were traveling through this forest and one night I woke to him being gone. I have searched for him but I haven’t found him yet.” She pursed her lips. “He’s a dark cream with blue eyes.” She motioned to her pelt. “His fur is as thick as the pelt I wear. He is kind and timid, I suspect someone spooked him and he lost his way. He responds to the name Broden.”
The color drained from Villem’s face.
Shei noticed. She frowned and crossed back over the creek, stepping close to Villem’s face. He could smell her now. A strong scent, but not unpleasant. The scent of pine and fur. “Do you know where my brother is? Is he safe?”
“Bad news kid. I pushed too many buttons and now they’re turning on us.”
Shei and Villem both jumped. She stepped back and he took the communicator out of his pocket, not breaking eye contact with her. “Can you smooth it over any more? I have a lead on what’s happening. But I can’t do anything yet.”
“No good there bud. If I get out of here alive I’ll be happy.”
“Ack can you just…” Villem sighed. “Okay. Okay.” He stared at Shei. Her eyes were set and determined. He nodded. “Can you tell them I have a lead? Tell them I may have solved their wolf problem.”
“That should do it. I hope. Apparently asking them what happened was a bad move. I’ll let you know what I can do.”
“Tell him I can have you back in the village in mere minutes.” Shei’s words were sharp. Uncomfortably sharp.
Villem nodded. “I’ll be back in the village in a few minutes, captain.”
“Minutes? It took you over a half hour to get were you were. Can you teleport?”
“That’s not how Spacial Magic works–” Villem stopped himself. Shei’s brows were sharply raised. He sighed. “I’ll explain when I get there.”
Villem returned the communicator to his pocket. Shei was raising the hood of her cloak.
Wait, that wasn’t a hood. It was a wolf’s face. Her cape was a complete wolf pelt.
“So you are a wizard? How interesting. I have heard stories but I haven’t met one before. I had my suspicion when you fell into the bush. I’ve never seen a human glow, let alone launch into the air.”
“Guilty as charged, I guess. I am a Spacial Wizard, which means I deal in… moving objects around.”
“I am aware of what a Spacial Wizard is. Are you capable of riding a horse?”
“A horse? I mean I’m a bit rusty but I’m sure I can manage. Why?”
“You shall ride on my back, then.” She pulled the hood over her face and the eyes of the wolf pelt opened.
Villem blinked. Standing in Shei’s place was a cream-colored wolf the size of a horse. “Oh this is interesting.”
“Very, I’m sure.” The wolf Shei shook her mane. “Get on my back and grab my mane. I can get us to the village quickly. You will need to hold on tight.” She bent down.
Villem awkwardly climbed on the wolf’s back and settled as best he could. He ran his fingers through the long fur on her neck before gripping tightly. “Is this okay? Am I hurting you?”
Shei chuckled, a low rumble deep within the wolf’s chest. “Perfectly fine, Wizard. I hope it’s tight enough for your sake.” And with that she turned and began to run.
Villem’s body snapped backwards and he gripped her mane tighter. The trees and bushes raced past them. The trail that took him so much time whizzed past, as fast as a horse’s gallop. And within minutes, Shei stood in the clearing just beyond the bramble bushes.
“Here we are.” She bent down. Villem slid off her back and she closed her eyes, pushing the pelt face off her own and standing human next to him again. “I want to see my brother.”
Villem’s heart stabbed with pain. “Shei–” He sighed. “I’m… Sorry. But I… I believe…”
Shei stared at Villem. As he spoke, the harsh, piercing stare softened into fear and pain. “What are you saying, Wizard? What of my brother? Is he alright?”
He looked away from her. He couldn’t take the pain in her eyes. “I.. I don’t believe he is. They shot a large wolf a few days ago. We were hired to find the wolf the size of a horse. You.”
She stood in silence. Her fists gripped tight and she growled. “They murdered my brother?”
“They didn’t know– Shei!” Villem followed after her, through the bramble bushes and down the street. The villagers walking along and talking to themselves stopped and fell silent at the sight of the woman in a wolf’s pelt walking down the road.
“Where is he? Where is my brother!” She demanded of each of them. They began to turn away from her and enter their homes, or shops, or anywhere they could go to get away.
Villem hurried next to her. “Shei–”
“You know where he is, don’t you, Wizard?” She gripped the breast of his cloak and pulled him close to her. “Take me to him!”
Villem nodded, his eyes wide. “Of course. Just… Stay behind me until I tell you otherwise. Okay?”
“I do not like that but I shall accept those terms.” She let go and he led her to the dock, where Graham stood with Fezen, the two other men, and a number of other men holding knives. As they approached, Villem could see Graham’s smiling face. But as they approached, it fell more and more into confusion.
Fezen was clearly confused as well. “What’s the meaning of this? You said you had the wolf, not some girl.”
Villem helpd up his hand and glanced back at Shei. Her eyes were locked on to the warehouse. Unsurprising, if her sense of smell was anywhere near a wolf. He looked to Fezen. “I need to know more about the circumstances surrounding the appearance of the wolves.”
Fezen frowned. “There wasn’t much to it. The wolf attacked the village. We defended ourselves.”
“Broden would never attack a village.” Shei spat.
“Excuse me, who are you girl?” Fezen’s mouth snarled. “Don’t you dare speak out of turn.”
Villem stepped to one side and Shei walked closer to Fezen. The armed men stepped in front of him before she could get near. “How dare you not speak the truth!” she spat on the ground. “I demand to know what truly happened to my brother.”
Fezen laughed. “You brother? Foolish girl. We shot a wolf, not a boy!”
Shei snarled and pulled her pelt over her face. The men screamed and fumbled back as she stood her full height as a wolf. “I am no human. Now tell me where my brother is!”
Fezen gasped in fear. He stumbled back and pointed to the warehouse. She removed the hood and walked to the door, the men gathering themselves as she went.
“Where is the key?” Shei turned to Fezen. He nodded his head to the men and they charged her.
Villem stepped forward and pulled up his hands, freezing the men in place with his magic. “Let’s not do that.” He glanced at Graham before walking to Shei, still holding the men where they were. “This woman lost her brother. The least you can do is let her into the warehouse.” He turned one of his hands to the door and snapped the lock down, breaking the handle.
Shei looked at him a moment before walking into the warehouse. A painful wail echoed from inside. Villem threw the men backward into the water before running into the building. Shei was on the ground with the wolf’s head cradled in her arms, tears pouring down her face. Her wails echoing like a wolf’s howl.
Villem walked over to her and knelt down, his head low. “I’m sorry, Shei. I’m so sorry.”
Shei buried her face into the fur of her dead brother’s forehead. She sniffled and after a moment looked at Villem, her face now stone. Tears continued to pour down her cheeks. “First, we lost our mother. And now, I am alone.” She pulled Broden closer. “I am alone.”
Villem’s head dropped. He didn’t know what to say to comfort her.
“You.” Her words dripped with anger.
Villem looked towards the door and saw Fezen standing there. Fear and confusion was across his face.
Shei snarled. “Who did this to him? I demand to know who killed Broden!”
Fezen looked from the dead wolf to Shei. “He was protecting the flock. Nothing else.”
“I don’t care what he was doing. He killed my brother and I demand his life!”
Fezen looked shocked. “What? I shall do no such thing!”
“And why not? A life for a life, it is fair payment!”
Villam held out his hand towards her. He balled it into a fist and pulled it back. “That’s not… That’s not how the laws work, Shei.”
Shei looked at Villem. “And why not? A murder is a murder and justice needs to be paid.”
He sighed and gestured to Fezen. “But to them, all they did was kill a mere wolf. They… don’t care.”
Shei laughed, more tears falling. “A mere wolf? A mere wolf!” She locked her eyes on Fezen. “This “mere wolf” you killed was my brother. Flesh of my flesh. He and I shared a womb, a mother, a family. He is my blood, as I am his. He wasn’t a “mere wolf.” You murdered him. And you don’t care? You are monsters!”
Fezen stared at her. “How can this wolf be your blood brother? How can this wolf be your flesh?”
Graham put his hand on Fezen’s shoulder. “It’s best you step out here.”
Fezen kept staring at Shei, even as Graham led the village leader out of the warehouse.
Villem turned back to Shei. She was combing her fingers through Broden’s fur. “Are you alright?”
“Of course I’m not.” Shei stared down at Broden. “I will never be alright. I have lost everything.”
Villem sighed. “I’m sorry for your loss, Shei.” He stared at Broden. “I… lost my brother too. I’m sorry you have to know that pain.”
“We were passing through on our way to visit the valley where our mother was born.” Shei touched her shoulder, digging her fingers into the fur of the cloak. “The moon wasn’t out and it was far too dark to see. Broden didn’t want to stop for the night, but I insisted. I knew it was foolishness to traverse these woods in total darkness. He agreed, and so we slept far off the path, but… when I woke that morning he was gone. I didn’t know where he wandered off to. I thought perhaps he was finding a place to pee, or was already hunting, so I waited. I waited until the sun was high and decided to look for him.” She gritted her teeth and held him tighter. “He’s dead because of me.”
“He’s dead because of the villagers, not you.” Villem put his hand on her shoulder. Shei jumped and looked at him for a moment, studying his face. She finally relaxed and put a hand on his. Her fingers were rough and calloused.
“Well, I just heard what really happened.” Graham walked into the warehouse. “It seems one of the teens decided it was a good idea to wander the forest so late at night it was nearly daybreak. He came across your brother. Seems he wasn’t expecting a talking wolf, and when the wolf asked him if he was alright, the teen shot him.”
Shei growled. “That is no reason to shoot him.”
“I agree, miss.” Graham walked to them. “I’m sorry about this. It was a sad, sad misunderstanding.” He looked from Shei to Villem. “The boy will be facing a certain level of punishment, so rest easy knowing some justice will be done.”
Villem nodded and looked to Shei. “Shei, um… if you have no place to go, would you like to join us?”
“What?” Shei and Graham spoke in unison, although Graham more yelled than spoke.
“I know what it’s like to be alone. And if you come with us, you won’t be. What do you say?”
Shei blinked. “I…” She looked down at Broden. She sighed. “Alright. I will join. Under the condition that I can bring my brother’s body.”
“We don’t have cold storage large enough for a body. Let alone the body of a wolf.” Graham said.
“That’s alright. I won’t need his body stored.” She hoisted him over her shoulders and stood. “I am Shei. Who are you?”
“Graham. I’m the captain of the ship.” Graham stared at the large wolf atop her shoulders. “If you’re joining my crew, you’ll have to wear actual– er, more clothes. An outfit like yours will get you in trouble in the world. Men aren’t the nicest of creatures.”
Villem looked at Shei. Now that Graham mentioned it…
Shei, with her arms over her head balancing the dead body of her brother, wasn’t wearing anything underneath the pelt she wore as a cloak. Her muscular, scarred body was exposed completely, aside from a loin cloth tied around her waist and a belt connected to a pouch on her thigh. Villem’s eyes wandered across her. He felt his face heat and he looked away.
“It is of no matter to me what I wear.” Shei said. “Regardless, I expect no man will be able to take me if I am not willingly giving.”
Graham snorted. “That, I believe. Come on, kids. They’re not going to pay us anything because of the mess we’ve caused.” The three walked to the dock and Graham scratched the back of his head, looking at Villem.
Villem pulled the walkway from the ship with a small flourish of his violet glowing hands. Graham held out his arm. “Ladies first. Welcome to the Gold Aurora.”
Shei grunted and walked up the walkway.
Villem began to follow when Graham grabbed him by the shoulder. The wizard grimaced. “Y-yes, captain?”
Graham bent down to Villem’s ear. “Listen here, boy, I don’t appreciate you inviting her along without asking me first, so I expect her to be your responsibility, okay?”
“Good. Now, more importantly…” Graham’s beefy, leathery hand tightened around Villem’s thin, bony shoulder. “That little stunt lost us a lot of money. Never let that happen again. You got me?”
Villem swallowed. “Yes, sir. I’ll never let that happen again.”
“Good boy, good boy.” Graham patted Villem’s shoulder. A twinkle lightened the captain’s eyes. “Now I expect you to be a smart man and pull out, you hear me? I don’t need any wolf puppies cluttering my ship.”
Villem stared at the captain and gasped. “Oh, no sir, nothing like that–!”
Graham laughed and slapped Villem’s back. “There’s a good man! Now let’s tell Rose about this wolf girl before she finds out the hard way.”